The Montgomery bus boycott of 1956, the first pitched battle of the modern civil rights movement, catapulted its general, Martin Luther King Jr., to national fame. But as this exceptional two-volume encyclopedia demonstrates, the unsung organizers, officers and (often literally) foot soldiers of the 381-day protest were working-class black women. As Erna Dungee Allen, financial secretary of the boycott committee, recalled, "They were the power behind the throne."
Reaching from the present back to colonial slave times, the encyclopedia boasts dozens of meticulously researched and highly absorbing thematic essays like "Montgomery Bus Boycott." With 604 full-scale biographical entries (and more than 450 photographs), the engagingly written 2,267-page work promises to become an invaluable school and library tool. Editor Hine, a professor of American history at Michigan Stale and author of several other reference works on black history, has lifted into sight stories of determination, dignity and daring that weave through every area of American life, and has given even the quietest its due. Butterfly McQueen, the actress who played the squeaky-voiced maid, Prissy, in Gone with the Wind, later gave up acting rather than accept demeaning roles and began working with minority students in Harlem. "I didn't mind being funny," she said, "but I didn't like being stupid." (Carlson, $195)